US abortion rights: Could a Mississippi case overturn Roe v Wade?

by Christine Murray and Anastasia Moloney | @chrissiemurray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 1 December 2021 18:30 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Abortion rights activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

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The U.S. Supreme Court indicated support for upholding a restrictive Mississippi abortion law that could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling recognizing a woman's right to end a pregnancy

By Christine Murray and Anastasia Moloney

Dec 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -  Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday indicated support for upholding a restrictive Mississippi abortion law in a ruling that would undermine or outright overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing the procedure nationwide.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, heard about two hours of oral arguments in the southern state's appeal to revive its ban on abortion starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy, a Republican-backed law blocked by lower courts. During the arguments, the three liberal justices sternly warned against ditching important and longstanding legal precedents like Roe.

IN FOCUS: Abortion curbs around the world

Abortion rights campaigners, who say U.S. abortion rights are under attack unlike any time since Roe, have said a decision that upholds Mississippi's law would effectively gut the 1973 ruling, giving states a free hand to limit or ban the procedure.

If Roe v. Wade was overturned, more women from conservative states like Mississippi would have to travel elsewhere for abortions, making it particularly difficult for poor, Black and Hispanic women to access the procedure.

What is Roe v. Wade?

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling known as Roe v. Wade that said a woman's decision to have an abortion was covered under the right to privacy.

The case involved a woman under the pseudonym of Jane Roe and Henry Wade, a state prosecutor in Texas, where abortion was only allowed if a pregnant woman's life was in danger.

The justices voted 7-2 that restrictions on abortion could not be broad and that the constitution protected the right to abortion before the stage at which a fetus could survive outside the womb, between 24 and 28 weeks.

"The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent," the ruling said.

What has happened since Roe v. Wade?

Abortion remains a divisive issue in the United States, as in many countries. Christian conservatives are among those most opposed to it.

For decades, conservative activists and politicians have tried to overturn and chip away at Roe v. Wade.

Lawmakers in states from Arkansas to Utah have been trying to pass bills that limit abortion rights, with efforts emboldened under former President Donald Trump.

Trump nominated three of the nine Supreme Court justices during his four-year term, tilting the balance firmly towards conservatives. Six of the justices in total were appointed by Republican presidents.

The justices on Nov. 1 heard arguments in challenges to a law in Republican-led Texas that bans abortion at about six weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from incest or rape. They have not yet ruled in the case.

U.S. abortion rates have steadily declined since the early 1980s, reaching the lowest levels on record in recent years, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute.

Most Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2019 survey by Pew Research Center said.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: An anti-abortion activist rallies outside the U.S. Supreme Court during the the 47th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

 What will happen now?

The case before the Supreme court judges on Wednesday is known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization and centers on the constitutionality of laws that ban abortions before a fetus is viable outside the womb.

The Mississippi state law in question, which bans abortion after 15 weeks without any exceptions for rape or incest, was blocked by a lower federal court in 2019.

Abortion rights activists argue that any rollback would have immediate knock on effects across the country.

"The consequences of a Roe reversal would be devastating. Over 20 states would prohibit abortion outright," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Some states have "trigger laws" that would instantly ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

What is happening elsewhere?   

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected abortion access around the world, with lockdowns preventing some women from undergoing the procedure in some places, while elsewhere at-home abortions pills have become easier to obtain.

Legislative decisions and court rulings have continued to revise abortion laws.

In Mexico, the Supreme Court ruled in September that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional, meaning courts can no longer prosecute abortion cases.

That followed Argentina's landmark decision to legalize abortion in January.

In Colombia, the constitutional court suspended a case in November that would have considered whether to fully decriminalize the procedure.        

Poland has been implementing a strict ban on terminating pregnancies.

Related stories:

U.S. abortion battle: What is the law in other countries?

U.S. states making 2021 moves on abortion rights and access

The price of abortion curbs: Economists weigh in on U.S. debate

U.S. abortion curbs: Fearing business impact, companies speak out

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